Sunday, October 30, 2016

3 Minute Culture-Builder -- Every day!

You're familiar with the "Teachable Moment."  It's what educators live for.  It is that moment full of potential for impacting a student.  You never know when it will present itself, but you want to capitalize on it when it does!

How do you begin your school day? Many schools begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, a moment of silence, and some morning announcements.  This is how we start our day in my school, and it seems like a perfectly appropriate routine.  But it turns out ... there are some "culture-builder" moments here.

Every morning, I begin by playing a clip of an upbeat song (usually no more than a minute).  About once every week or two, I accompany the song with a contest: the first teacher that emails me the name of the song (or the artist, or the movie it's from; the contest varies), wins the prize. After announcements are over, I take 3 Hershey kisses to the winning teacher, and I give one Hershey kiss to every teacher who participated.  What does this have to do with "instructional leadership?" Well, it's fun! And, in my experience, teachers who are having fun are more effective teachers.  It's fun for the students too!  They love the music, and they enjoy helping the teachers with the contest.  Winning becomes a source of pride for the entire class.  This begins our day with good energy.

After the song, I announce, "It's a GREAT day to be a WARRIOR!" I've been saying this for over 5 years now.  It injects some positivity into our morning routine, and it sets the tone for the day. At first, students rolled their eyes; they thought it was corny.  But it grew on folks.  People started to say it around the community.  If a student ran into me at Walmart, I would hear, "Hey Dr. Steele! It's a great day to be a Warrior!"  The summer after my first year of saying this, I found myself in drive-thru at a Dunkin Donuts.  When the girl handed me my coffee, she had written on the cup with a sharpie: "Great to be a warrior!" Positive energy can be infectious, and morning announcements are the perfect time to start your school day with enthusiasm and school pride.

This year I began giving "birthday shout outs" during the announcements.  Later in the day, I'll find the student and do a "Birthday selfie with the principal." I'll text the picture to the parents. This is a simple way of making students feel special each day, and the picture has been a huge hit with the parents.

Traditionally, members of student council have led the Pledge of Allegiance, but this year we decided to allow any student in the school to sign up for a day to lead the pledge. Before our guest student leads the pledge, they introduce themselves and they have the opportunity to share their personal dream with the student body.  This allows all of our students the opportunity to share their "voice" with the school, and it is a quick reminder to our staff about the importance of empowering and validating the passions of our students.

A positive school culture is not built overnight, and it is not the result of a single program or initiative.  It is achieved by taking advantage of the little opportunities to make a difference. We are presented with many moments to celebrate students and elevate the positive energy in our building. We should never forfeit them -- but rather, build a school culture that rocks ... one moment at a time!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What are they going home to?

I vividly remember this kid in my office, seated next to his mother. I'll call him Demetrius.  He was there because he had jumped another boy in the locker room.  I was in the process of assigning him several days of in-school suspension, and I wanted his mother to be aware of what we were dealing with. At one point in the meeting, Demetrius started to explain himself to me. He had barely opened his mouth long enough to get out two words when his mother popped him in the face with her hand. She didn't even appear to look at him.  It happened so fast, it startled both of us.  I don't recall much of a reaction from Demetrius, other than being startled and a bit embarrassed. (I think the physical pain from the slap was minor compared with his humiliation.) He continued looking forward the entire time. This happened many years ago.  It was my sense that this was not an unusual occurrence.  As Demetrius and I were walking down the sidewalk to ISS, I remember saying to him something like, "I'm sorry that happened, Demetrius. Nobody should have to deal with that." And I remember thinking to myself, "This guy doesn't have a chance.  No wonder he's slapping other kids in the locker room.  Violence is what he knows."

Many teachers have had the experience of scheduling a parent conference to discuss the failure of  a student completing homework, only to have the parent not show up for the conference. I have called home to discuss a child's disrespectful attitude, only to have the parent berate me on the telephone. Make no mistake about it: students are products of their environment.

It is nice to think about students coming to school with a "blank slate," and it is nice to imagine that education is the process where teachers get to write on that clean slate with everything children need to be productive citizens. It is a rewarding profession, when teachers mold the lives of young students and get to paint a beautiful picture on the canvas of their lives.  But here's the thing: the kids never come with a blank slate, and teachers are not the only ones painting on the canvas. Much has been written about the advantages enjoyed by kindergartners who had parents read to them in the first 5 years of their lives. The advantages of these kids extend beyond vocabulary acquisition, and they certainly do not stop at kindergarten. Likewise, the challenges that confront students who do not come from a supportive home environment remain with them throughout their schooling career. Some students come into our classes with values and habits already instilled in them that are counterproductive to those we are trying to instill in our classrooms. And, when they go home each day, they are often receiving messages that undermine what we are trying to accomplish in the classroom.

So what does this mean for educators? It does not mean that we lower our standards, and it does not mean that we whine about lack of parental support.  It does mean that we remain aware of the challenges that some of our students are having to overcome.  It does mean that we have to provide additional support, instruction, and even coaching in areas that might extend beyond traditional curricular standards.  And it certainly means that we practice empathy -- that we extend grace and compassion to every one of our students.

The next time you are frustrated with a student in your class, think about what that kid's canvas looked like before they came to you... and think about who might be writing on it after the bell rings. After all, we don't always know what our students came from... or what they're going home to.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Driven by Data ... but Inspired by Kids

I've told my teachers many times: 

"We don't want to get better by accident; we want to get better on purpose.  Data is what allows us to be strategtic."

However ...

This past week, my reading and math teachers had some awesome data meetings.  The reading teachers began with a quick review of spreadsheets.  They learned how to manipulate their data (i.e. sorting and filtering) to make it more "teacher friendly."   After the refresher on Google Sheets, they looked at how their students had performed on standardized tests last spring. They were able to divided those students into four different groups: Exceeding, Ready, Close, and Needs Support.  Furthermore, they analyzed the results of this fall's benchmark to determine how students are currently performing on the essential objectives.

Because the math benchmark has contained the same questions over the last 3 years, my teachers could actually track the trends on how their students have performed on the same questions. This in depth analysis provides our teachers guidance on how their instruction needs to be tweaked over the coming months. It also reveals which students need to be targeted with certain objectives.  This is the essence of "formative assessment" ... and my teachers engaged in it brilliantly,

I am very proud of how my teachers use the data to drive their instruction and increase their effectiveness in the classroom ... but it is my hope that they never lose sight of this: ultimately, it's not about the data; it's about the kids.  We did not get into education to raise test scores; we became educators to make a difference in the lives of our students.  I loved seeing my teachers write down the names of students who were 1 or 2 points away from proficiency.  It is easy to be bogged down in the numbers, but we must remind ourselves that we are not analyzing "data points" ... we are talking about children. Each cell in our spreadsheet represents a student ... their future ... and all of their hopes and dreams.  Analyzing the data is useful, but we must never lose sight of what that data represents.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

5 Ways to Connect with Kids and Enhance School Culture

We did not get into education to raise test scores; we do what we do to make a difference in the lives of kids. Without a doubt, we are committed to increasing academic achievement, but our success is predicated on forming meaningful relationships with our students. When we are intentional about connecting with kids, we remind ourselves and all those that we work with, what we're really about. 

What follows is 5 simple activities to connect with kids.  I'm a principal, so that is the perspective from which I'm coming, but the concepts here are easily transferable to teachers.  

1. Wall of Dreams - We had all our students write their dream on a white board that we mounted in the hallway.  We used sharpies, so they wouldn't rub off easily. 

Some of the dreams that stood out to me included these:

"I want to get better at math."
"My dream is to be a loving mother."
"My dream is for my sister to get out of the Air Force alive."
"I want to do something that MEANS something."
"My dream is to go to Paris, go to UAB, and get my first kiss."

When a student is sent to my office for some reason, the two of us can walk down to the wall of dreams and find their own.  We can talk about their dream and how their current behavior is helping or hurting their long term goals.  Every time any of the adults in the building walk by this wall, we are reminded of the awesome role that we play in helping our students reach their goals and achieve their dreams.  This activity can certainly be adapted to a classroom.

2. Take over a lunch class for the day - Periodically, take a teacher's lunch class. If there is a study hall that accompanies the class, use the time to play a "name game" with the students to learn their names.  It means so much to students when you take the time to learn their name.  Tell the teacher to enjoy a lunch off campus.  You are the teacher's hero that day ... cause they love a break ... and you get to know a few more students. 

3. Birthday selfies with the Principal - Run a report of every student's birthday.  On the morning announcements, give a birthday shout out to those celebrating that day.  At some point during the day, find those students and take a selfie with them.  I use an app called "Word Swag" to dress up the pictures.  I text the pictures to the student's mom or dad right after I take the picture.  The kids feel special, and the parents absolutely love receiving the pictures.  I have received so much positive feedback from this one activity.

4. Positive phone calls home - I just started this last week.  I asked the teachers to email me if they had any students they wanted to brag on.  I have been calling these students down to my office and then calling their parents while they sit in my office. I relay to he parents the awesome things the teachers have reported.  It is hard to describe the joy that these calls bring to parents.  Many parents have never received a positive message from the school.  The smile on the student's face while I brag on them to their parent is priceless as well.  My goal is to make 100 positive phone calls home by the 100th day of school.

5. Invite different students to lead the pledge - Allow students to sign up each day to lead the pledge of allegiance over the intercom. This allows you to meet a new student each morning in the office, and it gives students "voice" in your school.  It makes them feel valued and connected.

These activities are simple, but can have a profound impact on kids and on the culture of your school.  People know what you value when they see how you spend your time.  Being intentional about connecting with students keeps you grounded in the core mission of the school, and it communicates to the rest of the school community what your priorities are.  Try some of these strategies.  You won't regret them.